Cooking the Books 2: Is Ian Paisley a socialist?

It is not often that the business pages of the capitalist press refer to socialism. Past experience suggests that when they do they make fools of themselves. A recent article in the Times ( 9 January) by Tim Hames confirmed this. “Northern Ireland”, he wrote, “is in danger of replacing sectarianism with socialism”.

If only this were true. Unfortunately socialism (common ownership,democratic control, production for use not profit, distribution according to needs) is not on the agenda there and in any event couldn’t be since socialism cannot be established just in one country let alone one province.

But this is not what Hames had in mind.After pointing out that state spending represents 0 percent of all spending in Northern Ireland, he went on: “The Rev Paisley and Mr McGuiness will find little difficulty making common cause in asking for ever larger public spending to be showered, equitably, on their constituencies”.

While it is true that politics in Northern Ireland is characterised by what on the continent of Europe is known as “clientelism” – where different politicians appeal to a different group of identified “clients” on the basis of getting material benefits for them in particular – Hames is wrong in thinking government spending and subsidies on and for the poorer sections of society is socialism. If it did then the Reverend Inane Paisley, with his client basis of poor Protestants, would indeed be a socialist. An absurd conclusion which is proof that the original proposition is wrong in accordance with the principle of logic the Ancient Romans used to call reductio ad absurdum.

Government spending on measures to help the poor has nothing to do with socialism. That’s reformism not socialism. At most Paisley is a reformist, even a “leftwing” reformist compared with the UK Labour Party which used to take up this position (now it cuts back on benefits for the poor).

But if Paisley isn’t a socialist, what about President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela? He features on the business pages more than Paisley. Following his re-election as President in December, Chavez announced plans to (re-)nationalise telecom and power companies in Venezuela. Horrified, the Times (9 January) declared: “Mr Chavez begins his third termtomorrow, promising to complete what he calls  Venezuela’s Socialist Revolution of the 21st century”.

More people would find it easier to regard Chavez as a socialist than Paisley, but this is based on another misconception about socialism – that it means government ownership. If this was socialism then all sorts of people just as unlikely as Paisley would be socialists.

Capitalist governments everywhere, whatever their political colour, whether political dictatorships or political democracies, whether “rightwing” or leftwing”, have had recourse to nationalisation. Very early on socialists, basing themselves on the experience of Imperial Germany under Bismarck, identified this as state capitalism since with government ownership the workers remained exploited and bossed. The 70-year experience of Russia under the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks confirmed this, as did the experience of the nationalisations carried out by the postwar Labour government in Britain.

Nationalisation – government ownership of industry – is state capitalism because it leaves all the essential features of capitalism intact: production for sale with a view to profit, surplus value produced by wage worker, monetary calculation. Only the management changes, from private capitalists or their appointees to state bureaucrats.

Chavez’s renationalisation programme is no different. His “Socialist Revolution of the 21st Century” is the State Capitalism of the 20th Century all over again.

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